Political scientist Professor Dominic O’Sullivan says his eighth book, which has just been published, explains how the topic of Indigenous recognition is evolving in Canada, New Zealand and Australia and shows that recognising First Nations people needs to be much bigger than symbolic acts, such as Australia’s recent change of a word in its national anthem.
Opinion piece by Professor Dominic O'Sullivan, Professor of Political Science at Charles Sturt University and author of Sharing the Sovereign: Indigenous Peoples, Recognition, Treaties and the State.
Changing the phrase ‘we are young and free’ to ‘we are one and free’ recognises that ‘young’ denies at least 60,000 years of Indigenous occupation.
However, freedom, oneness and recognition are bigger concepts. When it is only symbolic, recognition doesn’t add to freedom or include people in the political life of the state as an Indigenous Voice to Parliament might help to achieve. Nor does it protect Indigenous people’s authority to make their own decisions about their lives, lands and cultures as treaties might help to achieve.
Recognition involves two parties accepting that the other has legitimate political standing, so that sovereignty isn’t an absolute power that the state exercises over and above Indigenous people.
Sharing the Sovereign argues that sovereignty is exercised by the state on the people’s behalf, and that human equality means that Indigenous citizens have a share in that authority as much as anybody else.
Arguments of self-determination - a right that belongs to everybody - means Indigenous nations retain certain rights in relation to land, language and culture and that they are entitled to manage these autonomously.
Working out what it means to recognise these claims is complex and contested. Sharing the Sovereign refers to arguments for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, treaties and examples of how these things are thought about in Canada and New Zealand, to consider what the right to self-determination means in practical terms. What it means for sovereignty, citizenship and democracy, for example.
In Victoria, the Treaty Advancement Commissioner says there may be instructive lessons to draw from ‘international best practice’ as treaties are discussed in Australia.
Treaties can set out the different kinds of authority that states and Indigenous nations should enjoy as a basis for just political relationships.
In New Zealand, the practical meanings of the Treaty of Waitangi are sharply contested, and the agreement is often breached by the state. However, Maori people generally see the Treaty as a solemn and enduring promise which gave the British Crown the right to establish government, but constrained that right with Maori authority over their own affairs, and by the Maori right to active participation in government.
These rights prevent the idea that the state should have a controlling authority over Maori people, land and culture. They also influence ideas about how the political system should work, and ideas about how and by whom public policy is made.
Sharing the Sovereign shows that if recognition is more than changing a word in the national anthem, it can help societies to think about treaties and a Voice to Parliament as helping to create a fairer political system.